Text resize: A A
Change contrast

Nobles and serfs

The United Arab Emirates and Poland-Lithuania compared and why sunshine and newspapers do not mix.

March 2, 2020 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Nacho Pintos. (cc) flickr.com

Sunshine in the middle of European winter – precious. The United Arab Emirates (UAE, الإمارات العربية المتحدة‎ al-ʾImārāt al-ʿArabīyyah al-Muttaidah) is one of the few places within the reach of a single affordable flight from Britain, where one can enjoy sun tanning on a balmy beach in January. The dread of high winds, sleet, ice-cold downpours, short overcast days and black ice is such that one hardly spares a second thought when an opportunity of a fortnight in the sun appears. Nowadays, the UAE is not the only Gulf petro-state that offers a summery escape to Europeans suffering winter blues. Bahrain and Qatar offer similar escapes, and in the ‘summer season’ of the 2019-2020 winter, Saudi Arabia joined the club, intent on diversifying its economy away from oil extraction.

And why not?

Doubts appear after a week or so, when a pampered tourist has already had a good dose of sunshine. The subsequent boredom of inactivity chases her to explore outside the hotel. There is not much to see beyond the sandy desert, the staple of a ‘traditional Bedouin village,’ and the stunning architecture of skyscrapers like the iconic Burj Khalifa (برج خليفة‎ ‘Khalifa Tower’) in Dubai. Many mistakenly believe that this over-advertised ultimate city of bling is the capital of the UAE. However, it is Abu Dhabi that plays this role, being the capital of the polity’s largest and richest emirate.

A bored tourist may visit the capitals of all the seven emirates, which constitute the UAE. But apart from Dubai with some trappings of western-style culture and entertainment, little is to be enjoyed in the other cities. Their commercial and industrial cores are surrounded by residential areas of luxurious houses for Emiratis and western expats, while foreign menial workers are crowded into barracks hidden from sight. Yes, restaurants and cafes in city centers and tourist areas are exquisite and overpriced, with a coffee in a paper cup priced at AED20, or 4 pounds. But no stands or kiosks are at hand from which one can buy a newspaper.

United Arab Emirates. Source: wikipedia.org

Hotels provide local newspapers – be it the Gulf News or Khaleej Times (alongside their counterparts in Arabic) – and even photocopies of excerpted news in English, German, French and Russian. These are not genuine news outlets, but gentle pro-UAE propaganda alongside some criminal stories and general world news thrown in for a good measure. That is the usual pattern of news coverage in this part of the world, best epitomised by Qatar’s global TV news station Al Jazeera. It is objective, incisive and critical, but never in regard to Qatar, which is off bounds to Al Jazeera journalists. While holidaying in the UAE in January 2020, I was overjoyed to hear that the defunct cult United States bookstore chain Borders survived in this country. But when I arrived in the Naeem Mall in RAK City (Ras al-Khaimah رَأْس ٱلْخَيْمَة‎), the employees were busy packing the books, this store in the process of liquidation. Fine, a tourist thirsting for an ‘Old World’ distraction may still visit another emirate that sports the franchise of the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi.

Fortunately for the UAE officials responsible for economic diversification, the vast majority of tourists are satisfied with the sun, beach and Dubai’s skyline alone. They have no knowledge of Arabic, let alone of the local Gulf vernacular, so tourists (and most expats, for that matter) have no way to delve into the real workings of the UAE’s social and political life. These are mediated for them – that is, blunted and sugarcoated – through the country’s de facto lingua franca of rudimentary English. Expats with a command of Arabic acquired during their stint in the UAE know well that it is better not to reflect on the workings of the country, let alone probe into its more dubious corners. The fate of the Durham University PhD researcher, Matthew Hedges, was warning enough. In 2018 he was arrested, accused of espionage, and summarily sentenced to life in prison. His ‘crime’ was that he researched the impact of the Arab Spring on the UAE’s foreign policy using publically accessible documentation.

Dubai in 1949. Source: recontalk

At the Abu Dhabi campus of the University of New York, I met a scholar of Armenian origin who had begun his academic career as a Soviet advisor in Somalia. When I inquired about the freedom of research, he smiled ironically and stated that this very freedom was as well observed in the UAE as in the west, though the country’s emirs and their ‘royal’ families were not really an appropriate subject of research. We engaged in a small talk, and I asked him if he stayed in the UAE during the summer months. His reply was a knee jerk ‘Hell, no. In August the place is like Vorkuta in reverse. Over 50°C in shadow.’

Eastern Europe in the UAE

At present, Russophone tourists from authoritarian Russia and Kazakhstan throng to the UAE’s beaches and are often joined by their counterparts from increasingly illiberal Poland. I presume that the UAE authorities are most welcoming to this novel cohort of European visitors. These guests already know how to behave well and understand what the unspoken hospitality contract is about. Eastern Europeans come to the UAE as most appreciated paying guests, who in return can expect exquisite – though affordable – service in hotels and restaurants. But as a guest, one must take care not to offend the host, just like at home one takes care not to criticise the powers that be. This tacit understanding – mostly absent in the case of pesky western tourists – serves both the holidaying eastern Europeans and the UAE’s strategic goal of economic diversification. The fewer difficult questions asked, the more pleasant the stay will be.

However, rudimentary fluency in English is sufficient to strike a conversation with a taxi driver, hotel maid or pavement sweeper. No, none of them is ‘from here,’ (the Emirates). The tourist can quickly learn that all the workers doing menial jobs in the UAE come from the overpopulated poor countries of southern and southeastern Asia. In my own experience, in RAK City most taxi drivers were from Pakistan, while many of their counterparts in Dubai came from India. Female restaurant staff often originated from Thailand and Indonesia, while domestic helpers from the Philippines. On the other hand, innumerable construction workers have arrived from Bangladesh, Egypt and Nepal.


White collar workers, that is, middle-ranking managers, teachers, engineers, or medical doctors are predominantly western expats, stemming from Europe and North America. In the UAE’s population of less than 10 million, indigenous Emiratis amount to a tenth of the inhabitants. Western expats account for a further 10 per cent, while the bulk of the population – around 60 per cent – is composed of south and southeast Asian workers. Expats from Arabic-speaking countries and Iran make up the rest.

An expat may apply for Emirati citizenship after residing continuously in the UAE for 20 years and achieving fluency in Arabic, provided he has never committed a crime. Given that job contracts dished out by UAE employers are at most for a couple of years, very few expats will ever meet these onerous conditions of naturalisation.

Dubai in 1950. Source: wikipedia.org

Furthermore, menial workers are unable to afford to bring their families along to the UAE. For instance, a taxi driver’s monthly salary is AED 2,000 (= 400 pounds). Typically he lives in a rented room with five other taxi drivers in order to economise on rent. Nevertheless, his living expenses, food included, amount to AED 1,200 per month. The difference of AED 800 he sends home to Pakistan or India, which still is twice the size of the local salary. In the UAE taxi drivers usually work every day of the week for 18 months straight, and then they go home for three months. Any medical expenses are on them. Should they fall seriously ill, they are sent back home.

State education (free of charge) is provided for Emirati children only. Otherwise, the tuition in a private elementary school is around AED 30,000 per annum or a third more than any taxi driver’s annual salary. Hence, only western expats in white collar jobs can afford to bring their families over. A medical doctor may easily earn 8,000 pounds per month, while the employment package often includes complimentary school or college education for her children. The salary is so huge because no income or healthcare tax is deducted from the paycheck. But due to cultural differences, hardly any western expat plans to stay in the UAE for good. They come for money only, and after a couple of years they go back to their countries of origin.

A decade ago, the UAE government commenced the policy of emiratisation, or the preferential treatment for Emiratis. The aim is to wean them off state employment, to increase their share in the private sector, and to attract more of them to regular employment. However, for the sake of social calm, the state provides all Emiratis with a high standard of living, hefty unemployment benefits, free education and free healthcare. And yes, women are not expected to work. When young Emiratis marry they receive a fully furnished luxurious house and an excellent car for their new family. However, when an Emirati man decides to marry a non-Emirati woman, he thus forfeits the package, and typically their children can apply for Emirati citizenship only when they come of age at 18. The non-Emirati wife may acquire Emirati citizenship after 7 years of marriage, provided she has born a child, or after a decade in the case of a childless marriage. In the case of Emirati women marring foreigners, they forfeit even their own Emirati citizenship. It is a closed highly patriarchal society, where men enjoy more rights than women.

Poland-Lithuania in the Arabian Peninsula?

Unquestionably, the UAE is now an ultra-modern place which, in the span of just half a century, changed from a desolate desert and oases roamed by camels to sky scrapers, shopping malls and helipads. However, the country’s unequal social organisation brings to mind an earlier epoch in European history, namely that of feudalism. In those times one was born to a given social stratum (or ‘estate’), and society was organised as a pyramid of such estates. The top was reserved for the ruler (monarch), or the seven emirs in the case of the present-day UAE. Only the nobility enjoyed full civic rights and could participate in the running of the feudal state. In the UAE, it is the Emiratis who play this distinguished role. But because they make up 10 per cent of the population, they are quite numerous. In western Europe, nobles never amounted to more than 1 to 3 per cent of the entire population. The situation was different in central Europe. For instance, in Poland-Lithuania nobles constituted a tenth of the polity’s inhabitants.

Dubai in 2015. Source: wikipedia.org

In the context of such numerous nobility, the dominant layer of magnates emerged in Poland-Lithuania. In the UAE this group may correspond to the seven ruling emirs’ families, whose size tends to be huge, due to the continuing tradition of polygamy. Like magnates in the past, the UAE’s ‘royals’ do not mix with the hoi polloi. They keep to themselves, their palaces and wild life reserves, secured with high e-walls (high tech fences fitted with CCTV, movement detectors and even automatic fire response on assult) and by guards. When travelling, UAE royals even benefit from their own separate airport in Dubai, serviced by their own monarchical airline, the Dubai Royal Air Wing (جناح طيران دبي الملكي  junah tayaran dubay almalaki).

If the Emiratis are the UAE’s nobility and the emirs’ ‘royal’ families can be seen as magnates, who could then constitute other estates in the social pyramid of the UAE’s society of estates? I would say that the estate of burghers may be credibly equated with the UAE’s distinctive layer of western expats, while the remaining rest of the population in menial jobs – that is, around 70 per cent – may be equated with Poland-Lithuania’s serfs. Like these serfs, members of the last group have no other rights and perspectives in the UAE beyond working day and night, as required by their Emirati (‘noble’) employer. In the kafala system (نظام الكفالة niām al-kafāla ‘sponsorship system’), which typically governs this type of employment, the employer has disproportionate power and control over the employee. The former even confiscates the latter’s passport for the contract’s duration, so de facto the employer comes to ‘own his’ employee, like noblemen previously did in the case of serfs in Poland-Lithuania.

Society of estates (Ständegesellschaft) (Source: Caricature Showing the Third Estate Carrying the First and Second Estates on Its Back, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, c. 1788.

2019 was officially hailed as the Year of Tolerance in the UAE. The Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Emir of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (محمد بن راشد آل مكتوم‎), pronounced in a grandiose manner that ‘We want the UAE to be the global reference point for a tolerant culture, via its policies, laws and practices.’ And indeed, in February 2019, Pope Francis visited the UAE. This was the high point of the Year of Tolerance. During recent years over 30 churches of different Christian creeds opened for western expats (‘burghers’) in the UAE. In the case of menial workers (‘serfs’), those from India can attend religious services in the Hindu temple in Dubai, and the construction of another temple commenced in Abu Dhabi in 2019. In 2010, a Sikh gurdwara opened in Dubai. Although an unofficial synagogue began operating in Dubai in 2008, only in 2019 did the President of the UAE and Emir of Abu Dhabi, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan (خليفة بن زايد بن سلطان آل نهيان) officially recognised the existence of Jews as a religious community in the country. The first official synagogue is planned to open in 2022 within Abu Dhabi’s multifaith complex named the Abrahamic Family House. It is going to house a church, mosque and synagogue.

Likewise, in Poland-Lithuania, Armenian (Monophysitic) Christians, Jews or Muslims were recognised as distinctive communities and tolerated for the sake of a variety of useful skills and services that they provided to the monarchy and nobility. Obviously, Catholics were firmly placed on the top of the pile, and the Polish-Lithuanian ruler had to be a Catholic. Similarly, all the UAE emirs and their families (‘magnates’) and all the Emiratis (‘nobles’) must be Muslims and actively profess Islam. Atheism in the case of western expats (‘burghers’) or menial workers (‘serfs’) is of no interest to the UAE authorities, as long as they do not propagate irreligion. On the other hand, it is illegal for any Muslim Emirati (‘noble’) to convert to any other religion. This ‘sin of apostasy’ is punishable by death. And obviously, non-Muslims are barred from entering mosques in the UAE. Due to the ongoing tension between Sunni Saudi Arabia (or the UAE’s main regional ally) and Shia Iran, Shia Muslims are not appreciated in the Emirates. From time to time they suffer outright discrimination and periodic expulsions.

Poland-Lithuania at its greatest extent. Source: wikipedia.org

Perhaps the goals of the Year of Tolerance did not cover gender equality. Women have to find their own way in this patriarchal society around religiously and traditionally imposed restrictions. At times, this means leaving an unloving or domineering husband, who may control his spouse as closely and absolutely as a kafala system employer ‘his’ employee. In mid-2019, Dubai Emir’s sixth wife, Princess Haya bint Hussein (الأميرة هيا بنت الحسين‎), managed to evade the close attention of minders, and left for Germany where she was granted asylum. This was big news on world newspapers’ front covers, but not in the UAE.

The past is never past. The society of estates, typical of medieval and early modern Europe, is now being recreated in the Gulf petro-states. Of course, creating a society of estates has not been part of any development plan, and I am almost sure that no emir of the UAE knows anything about Poland-Lithuania. However, decisions taken by the UAE absolute rulers, combined with the need to tolerate foreign specialists and workers, have created such a nexus of socioeconomic and political constraints and encouragements, which pushes the country in the direction of a society of estates. As a result, monographs on Poland-Lithuania can now be dusted off and re-leafed through for useful parallels and comparisons. Political scientists may soon find out that an improved comprehension of the sociopolitical future of the UAE, Qatar or Bahrain can result from examining the Polish-Lithuanian past.

“Is it a joke or irony?” One might ask. How about thinking out of the box?, and not being blind to the reality as it unfolds in front of one’s eyes. Interestingly, western expats and tourists arrive from their democratic homelands, where the remnants of feudalism (including society of estates) were liquidated two centuries ago. But they are happy to embrace the neo-feudal relations, as nowadays developed in the UAE. It is pleasant to be able to afford a chauffeur, cook and a domestic helper or two, although morally the situation appears odious. Equality before the law, one vote per citizen, and equality of chances guaranteed for all by state education are cherished western ideals on which democracy rests. Yet in the UAE a typical westerner is ready to dispense with these high principles. With time, such a lackadaisical approach to democracy is bound to be exported to the west, thus contributing to the populist tendencies, which have been on the rise for the last decade.

Next, it may turn out that the UAE’s social model may not be any throwback from the past, but the way of the future – colorful, prosperous, unequal and authoritarian. Isn’t communist China’s worldwide Belt and Road Initiative more compatible with society of estates than democratic societies of equal citizens? Now it is time to decide noblesse oblige or democracy.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge. 

, ,


Terms of Use | Cookie policy | Copyryight 2024 Kolegium Europy Wschodniej im. Jana Nowaka-Jeziorańskiego 31-153 Kraków
Agencja digital: hauerpower studio krakow.
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active
Poniższa Polityka Prywatności – klauzule informacyjne dotyczące przetwarzania danych osobowych w związku z korzystaniem z serwisu internetowego https://neweasterneurope.eu/ lub usług dostępnych za jego pośrednictwem Polityka Prywatności zawiera informacje wymagane przez przepisy Rozporządzenia Parlamentu Europejskiego i Rady 2016/679 w sprawie ochrony osób fizycznych w związku z przetwarzaniem danych osobowych i w sprawie swobodnego przepływu takich danych oraz uchylenia dyrektywy 95/46/WE (RODO). Całość do przeczytania pod tym linkiem
Save settings
Cookies settings